And then here were ten. Nominations closed for the leadership of the Conservative Party on Monday. What had appeared to be turning into a grand melee – where it appeared easier to identify which Tory MPs were not running rather than were, so prolific was the announcement of candidatures – instead became a manageable scrum.
A last-minute rule change by the 1922 Committee seemingly scuppered the hopes of several candidates, who struggled to reach the threshold of eight names in support or decided that their efforts would be more sensibly spent backing others. It is now expected that, following the commencement of voting tomorrow, the final two candidates will be known in just a week’s time – which is a small mercy, given that the whole process could otherwise have dragged on interminably.
But with minds now focused, this raises a real question: what is it that Conservative MPs and then members are actually voting for?
There are four distinct criteria by which the candidates can be judged: when they will be able to deliver Brexit, how they can keep the Conservative Party together while achieving that goal, whether they can win a General Election against Jeremy Corbyn, and if they will be able to govern with vision.
Judging by the discourse to date – and in an inversion of a leadership election in more normal times, when electability and an exciting vision for government would be the criteria of choice – it appears that the main preoccupation of the party electorate is an obsession with Brexit to the detriment of all else.
For leaving aside the issue of which candidates inhaled, smoked or snorted what substances and when – something which briefly threatened to overshadow the entire contest over the weekend – it is the candidates’ Brexit positions that have attracted the most attention. Their manifesto commitments and even appeal to the electorate have largely fallen by the wayside.
Perhaps this is because it is only over Brexit that our field of runners and riders are really split down the middle.
The candidates have all agreed that tax cuts of various kinds will be required, and have come up with a range of eye-catching policies that are variants along a general theme of ensuring that the “squeezed middle” will have more money in their pockets, without abandoning those in society who need help the most. There is a broad consensus here, even if some are more interventionist in instinct than others.
Nor is there any real disagreement that almost any of the candidates will be able to put up a better fight against a Corbyn-led Labour Party – one that has its own deep divisions and doubts about its ability to govern – than that afforded by Theresa May. A certain blonde bombshell may fancy his chances more than others, but almost any decently-led Conservative Party with a coherent set of policies should be able to see off the kind of political challenge posed by Jeremy Corbyn and his far-leftist ideas.
Which brings us back to Brexit. There is a clear divide between those who insist that 31 October is a realistic and final deadline for it – with the implicit threat that a no-deal Brexit will be entered into if a negotiated one has not come to pass by that point – and others who believe that this deadline is either unachievable or can be fudged if significant progress can be made with a Brussels renegotiation by that date.
The reality is that both sides are delusional to a point.
The first camp has failed to recognise that parliamentary arithmetic means that they will not be able to drive their backstop position of no deal through should negotiations fail. Parliament may have rejected every deal and indicative vote put in front of it, but the one thing it has supported is a rejection of no deal. A Prime Minister attempting to force that outcome would likely be toppled in a vote of no confidence, with an election to follow in an atmosphere of chaos.
As to the second camp, their weakness is that the much maligned deal struck by Theresa May happens to be the best one that the Europeans will offer.
The EU will not abandon Ireland for political reasons, whatever the economic implications of such a stand. So while the EU may reopen negotiations, it will only be to push the UK into a position of more interaction with European institutions – not less. It is difficult to see any Conservative Prime Minister being able to take this course of action.
So what is to be done? A second referendum, taking this toxic issue out of the realm of party politics and back into the national arena where it belongs, is the obvious answer. But for whatever reason, the candidates will not countenance it.
As a result, Conservative MPs and members should consider the only remaining leadership criteria when making their minds up about who to vote for: which candidate will be best able to keep their party together in the coming maelstrom?
With only difficult choices ahead, regardless of the path chosen, the ability to provide unity between the different wings of the party will prove to be the most important factor in determining whether the Conservatives survive as the party of government.
It is the candidate who can best deliver that who ought to be crowned leader. Without it, all will be lost.